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Microsoft’s Gates seeks Brazil talks

Microsoft Corp. is lobbying Brazil’s government to agree to a meeting between the company’s chairman, Bill Gates, and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at the World Economic Forum next week, a Brazilian official said.

The country has taken prominent role in the so-called free software movement, an effort that champions free computer operating systems like Linux as an alternative to Microsoft’s Windows program. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

“Brazil wouldn’t gain anything from this, but Microsoft would gain a lot,” Sergio Amadeu, head of the president’s national technology institute, told Reuters. “They want to try to lobby Lula in the other direction.”

Tired of paying costly licensing fees to companies like Microsoft, Brazil, the world’s eighth-most wired nation, has told agencies in its sprawling federal bureaucracy to move to Linux and free software programs that run on it.

This year, the government will try to get private citizens to make the switch. It will partially subsidize the purchase for lower middle-class people of 1 million computers running Linux along with 25 other open source programs.

An effort by Microsoft to arrange a meeting between Gates and Lula could mark a shift in strategy for dealing with Latin America’s largest country.

Last year, it sued Amadeu for saying the company was like a drug pusher who gives free samples to get consumers hooked and then starts charging for the product. Microsoft dropped the suit after Amadeu said he was just repeating what he learned in economics textbooks.

Microsoft’s new tactic of conciliation instead of confrontation reflects the country’s growing status among the digital elite. It is also a recognition that pushing for open source software is part of a larger set of policies first implemented by Lula’s predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Worried about growing HIV infection rates in the late 1990s and the cost of treating them, Cardoso’s administration threatened to break patents on anti-AIDS drugs unless multinational drug companies cut prices. The strategy worked.

Wired magazine, the bible for technology fans, published a lengthy article in November championing Brazil’s growing role in the free software movement.

Although quantifying how much the government could save under the open source guidelines is hard to estimate, Amadeu said it would save the country millions of dollars in coming years.

Lula’s press office said a meeting between Lula and Microsoft officials has not been put on the president’s appointment book for his visit to the meetings with business and economic leaders in Davos, Switzerland, January 26-30.

Microsoft officials in Brazil declined to comment.